Bummer about the Soay sample; North Ronaldsay’s truly fascinating

Soay: sample not looking so hot

Here's what you don't want in a fleece, especially from a rare breed: sunburned tips that snap off. Sometimes sunbleached tips on a fleece are just fine—the color has lightened or gone brown without weakening the fiber very much. Sometimes the damage goes too far. Especially bad when it's a hard fiber to get, like Soay, a breed that's been around since the Stone Age (that's before the Bronze Age and the Iron Age) and doesn't fit the industrialized agricultural model in any way. It's far from impossible to get Soay, but when you do get it and it falls apart . . . that's a problem.


The top lock is the original form. The bottom two locks show what happens when I pull—not even very hard—on those crispy, brown tips (they feel like pencil shavings).

Also, at the bases of most of the locks is a bunch of scurf, or skin flakes, that can be removed from a fleece but the fiber needs to be able to withstand extra handling, which this wool won't. If just the tips were damaged, I could snip them off. But the rest of the staple feels crispy (therefore fragile) as well. Hmmm. What to do? I don't know yet.

North Ronaldsay

North Ronaldsay's another very old breed. Most writings say Iron Age, but recent DNA testing says it goes back farther.

Working with this sample was slightly challenging, too, because the breed's fleece has a tendency to form matts at the bases of the locks (an incomplete transition from naturally shedding to needs-shearing types of sheep) and the tips of the locks were stuck together.

However, the tips didn't break off and I was able to flick both ends of each lock on a fine-toothed hand carder and separate the fibers, which I then spun on a hand spindle. It made quite a blissful yarn–not much of it, because I have to move on, but I could feel the North Ronaldsay's close relationship to Shetlands as I spun. (Some North Ronaldsay fleeces feel closer to other relatives.)

The wee two-ply sample skein is drying (in this photo, it was still singles).


A clean, unprepared lock is on the bottom and one of the prepared locks is on the top. It's a Magpie spindle.

One little surprise on this sample was that when I checked it into the tracking system I wrote "light gray." Obviously, it's pretty darn white. It's amazing how the dirt in a fleece can shift the perceived color of unwashed wool. Spinners find this most disappointing when they think they've found a light brown fleece and it turns out to be cream or white.

Part of what I learned today is why the matting forms at the bases of the locks within this breed—which gave me more patience in dealing with it. I also wrote up most of the material on North Ronaldsays, with all sorts of additional information that I, at least, find really cool.

One breed a day? Oh, I hope not! This project will take forever, and I have until the end of summer.

Hat from the booth of El Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco at Maryland Sheep & Wool

I promised a more accurate photo:


Isn't it lovely?

And as a bonus here's a better photo of the breed-specific skeins I bought at Maryland:


That helps me keep my perspective about things like disintegrating Soay wool.


23 thoughts on “Bummer about the Soay sample; North Ronaldsay’s truly fascinating”

  1. Nope, no fibers from June yet. I have an idea for a different source and have dropped a note. Thanks for the reminder about June . . . and I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes up with! Anticipating especially nice Herdwick.

  2. Oh. My. God. The Hat! Must find out more about this place you found. Must.

    We will need to talk hats when your life gets a bit less crazy. OK????????


  3. The CTTC (Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco) textiles are extraordinary. There is nothing to compare to them.

    Great about the Cowichan!

  4. The Centro is the brainchild of Nilda Callanaupa, whose vision it has been to bring back the textile traditions of the Peruvian Andes, which had been bastardized as people moved toward making items for tourists: inappropriate yarns, nontraditional colors, coarser work. Her vision was to move people back toward making alpaca and wool items, with traditional colors, as finely made as they wanted to. This is blissful because the Peruvian textiles are among the world’s most intricate and interesting *in all of history.*

    The Centro is located in Cusco, but Nilda (and her sister Flora, and a variety of friends) have been giving the artisans a presence at a number of U.S. textile-related shows.

    Yes. You need to know about them.

    Considering the quality of the textiles, they are not expensive at all. They are not casual purchases, but regular folks can afford some of them.

  5. There’s a whole lot of cool stuff that is not represented on the site–small bags, larger bags of interesting and useful designs, some hats that have a wonderful popcorn-like texture, very fine, in multiple colors. . . .

  6. Thanks much for the photos of the North Ronaldsay locks: my brother-in-law came back from a trip to the Outer Hebrides two years ago with a small ball of mixed brown and white roving that I patiently separated into separate colours.

    I’ve got a project for them — albeit a very small one! — but you can tell from the roving that it’s just not from a “commercial” sheep

  7. Just for you, Linda, I’m pulling out several North Ronaldsay locks to take photos. FASCINATING. Lots of explanatory information written up for the project.

  8. Is the problem with the Soay something common to the breed, or just that particular sheep?
    I hadn’t heard of the North Ronaldsay – very interesting!

  9. Great question, Gayle. It’s neither the breed (although dark fleeces do tend to bleach at the tips) nor the particular sheep.

    It’s a matter of weather and husbandry during the particular year that this sheep was growing this individual fleece. Another year, the same sheep could just as well grow a perfect fleece.

  10. Great question, Gayle. It’s neither the breed (although dark fleeces do tend to bleach at the tips) nor the particular sheep.

    It’s a matter of weather and husbandry during the particular year that this sheep was growing this individual fleece. Another year, the same sheep could just as well grow a perfect fleece.

  11. I have to question the spindle: are you sure that’s a Maggie? Looks more like a Spindlewood (basing that on the hook).

    And now I want me some Suffolk–it looks dreamy.

  12. Yup, I’m sure it’s a Maggie. I bought it from John himself at Estes Park Wool Market a couple of years ago, and I don’t have a Spindlewood (yet)!

    Suffolk *can* be dreamy. Look at the individual fleece–quality varies radically.

  13. How funny! I was going to write, “Are you sure that spindle is a Magpie? It looks just like my David Reed Smith Sara II.” I pulled out my spindle and it turns out it only looks a lot like it; definitely not the same. Still amusing.

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